South Sudan will mark its independence with a ceremony in the capital of Juba, capping a bloody, lengthy path to freedom. The celebration will follow a two-decade-long civil war between the Arab Islamic north and the mostly Christian south that ostensibly concluded with the signing of a 2005 peace agreement.
That agreement, though its implementation is still incomplete, required a referendum to determine the future status of the southern part of the country. In January of this year, nearly 99 percent of the southern Sudanese who voted in the referendum chose independence.
Questions still remain for the new state and its old country, such as: Where exactly will the border between the two be, especially regarding the region of Abyei? How will the revenues from the oil-rich south be divided? Will southern Sudanese maintain citizenship rights if they continue to live in the north?
There is also the danger of militia forces possibly backed by Khartoum fomenting unrest in South Sudan.
Despite the uncertainties, advocates for religious liberty and human rights applauded the milestone.
It was "a long time in coming" for people who "paid a tremendous price," Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., told Baptist Press.
Southern Baptist religious freedom leader Richard Land said July 9 "will be a great day for southern Sudan and its people."
The southern Sudanese "have suffered terrible deprivations, and hundreds of thousands have died under the brutal Khartoum regime," said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). "Their 98 percent-plus vote for independence in the referendum was compelling proof of their desire to rule themselves as an independent nation.
"Freedom-loving people around the world should celebrate with the people of southern Sudan this propitious occasion," he said, "and the world community should do everything in its power to guarantee the full independence and sovereignty of its new neighbor, the Republic of South Sudan."
Faith McDonnell told Baptist Press her first reaction "is to be very happy for South Sudan, to almost not be able to believe that it is happening."
"It's just a miracle, really," said McDonnell, director of the Church Alliance for a New Sudan at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said it would be "a tremendously exciting day for the people of South Sudan and the world."
In the written statement, Leo called it "a tremendous achievement for American diplomacy and the work of the international community. Dedicated, bi-partisan efforts spanning the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama and numerous sessions of Congress, as well as the tireless work of many special envoys to Sudan ... were central to achieving peace and creating" the Republic of South Sudan.
There are multiple concerns for the new country, longtime observers say. Wolf told BP he expects the southern Sudanese "are going to have a lot of problems." The congressman, who has visited Sudan five times since 1989, said his concerns include the lack of infrastructure, the underdeveloped resources, the loss of a "whole generation" during the civil war and the continued rule of Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
Yet, Wolf said, the southern Sudanese "have a lot of spirit and strong faith. So I'm pretty optimistic that they're going to do well."
For Christians outside South Sudan, life can be expected to be more difficult, Wolf and McDonnell told BP. Al-Bashir has said he plans to enforce Shariah law in Sudan.
"I think we are going to see our Christian brothers and sisters going through a really hard time if they are not in South Sudan," McDonnell said.
Wolf said, "I wouldn't want to be a Christian living in downtown Khartoum, and yet there are a number of them. n amazing thing -- the church is really alive" in the south and part of the north.
As independence day for South Sudan neared, al-Bashir's military attacked regions at the border but not in the new country. Khartoum forces invaded and bombed Abyei in May, driving more than 100,000 people from their homes, the Enough Project reported July 7. They began bombing the Nuba Mountains in the state of South Kordofan in early June, displacing more than 70,000 people, and reportedly have practiced ethnic cleansing, according to the Enough Project.
South Sudan will occupy about the lower one-third of what was formerly the largest African country in land area. The region of Abyei rests in the middle of the border between Sudan and South Sudan, and the sides have been unable to reach an agreement on how to determine its future. North and south disagree on which residents in Abyei should be able to vote in a referendum.
Christians and others in the Nuba Mountains sided with the south in the long civil war that was based largely on religious differences, with the militant Arab Islamic forces backed by Khartoum pillaging Christian, animist and moderate Muslim villages. It is estimated more than two million people in the south and central parts of Sudan died at the hands of the Khartoum-supported militia and another four million or so were displaced.
While there has been some peaceful resolution in the south, the western region of Sudan has been the scene of ongoing, ethnic cleansing for the last eight years. Khartoum military forces and Arab militias supported by the government have committed widespread atrocities against African Muslims in Darfur. The genocide has resulted in the killing of an estimated 300,000 people, as well as rampant torture, rape and kidnapping. Nearly four million people have fled their homes because of the attacks.
The U.S. State Department has designated Sudan as one of only eight "countries of particular concern," a category reserved for the world's worst violators of religious liberty.
USCIRF is a nine-member panel selected by the president and congressional leaders. It reports to the White House and Congress on religious freedom overseas.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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